(04/07/12) (05/31/12) (12/10/13)
Ask any real historian to name the most historical building in Natick and he'll probably point to the one-time cobbler shack of former Vice President Henry Wilson. Ask a food historian or hot dog fan and he's more likely to name Casey's Diner near the center of town. And he'd be right on historical grounds too, as the 92-year-old structure is a registered landmark. Built in 1922 and acquired by the Casey family in 1925, the Worcester dining car has no tables but 10 wooden stools, placed close together against a counter. The griddle is nearly a century old and still carried the remnants of burgers past.
Having grown up in Natick, I remember Casey's from its previous location on the west side of the library; now it's on the north side across South Avenue, which runs parallel to Route 135. I remember the hot dogs vividly, but even as a burger fan right out of the cradle I never knew until recently that it even had a burger, much less a respectable one.
The menu is simple and dated, featuring hot dogs (always top billing), hamburgers, cheeseburgers, tuna sandwiches and not much else. Forget fries; there's no deep fryer here.
Most of the customers are locals and most know the routine: a hot dog "all around" includes mustard, relish and onions. Come during lunchtime and there's a line to order at the takeout window to the right of the structure, and most likely a line for the coveted stools as well.
I prefer to eat inside, enjoying the charm of the antiquated menu and the legitimately antique griddle.
This no-nonsense burger ($3.50 without cheese; $3.80 with) gets a no-nonsense bun choice, looking very similar to the McDonald's small size seedless bun. Taste and texture at least seem like a slight upgrade: a little less white, a little less dense, a little more brown and flaky on top. It gets griddled to firm up the interior so it can withstand the juices.
Another simple selection, this beef. It's probably 100% chuck and definitely 100% unfrozen before it hits the griddle. Salting is beyond light; it isn't even considered. Perhaps the onion (if you order it) makes up for that oversight: they're pressed into the meat so that the two cook together. I've heard tales of bacon being cooked the same way, but my few tries have been cooked separately.
I don't think I've ever been asked how I wanted my burger done; they just do their thing. The crusts have been well formed at a minimum and dark, thick and fully crunchy at times, fortified by the leaking juices that they cook in. I often expect an overdone burger, but it always comes out at the midpoint between medium rare and medium. More importantly, regardless of how done that crust is, the patty is always loose and gentle. Flavor is mildy beefy in that old time way, with most of the flavor coming from the burnt fat and those decades of burger past rubbing off on the crust. It'll never compete with the best of the newfangled blends, but it's cooked fresh, served hot, placed in front of you while those juices are still trickling, and reliably soft and moist from first bite to last.
As far as toppings go, the options are few and the chefly creativity is nonexistent—refreshingly so when you're in the right frame of mind. Aside from the onions, which get a nice char from the high heat griddling, the toppings have been okay but nothing noteworthy. Bacon is sometimes burnt or greasy. I don't think I've ever tried the burger with cheese, even on the "undocumented" visits.
The Hot Dogs
The dogs ($2.60) are boiled, the buns are soft, the flavor is mild and the casings are thick, providing a good snap when you bite into them. Nothing exotic or revolutionary, but satisfying every time.
The Fries (and such)
Potato chips: Served in individual bags. You could talk yourself into believing that this makes more sense for the era Casey's started in, but let's face it: they're not fries and not homemade, so they're a minor disappointment. I usually skip the potato chips and get a hot dog as my side.
Speaking of talking yourself into believing things, I can think of a few other joints with a similar time warp appeal—and I'm looking at you, Worcester—that rest a little too heavily on that old-time charm and put only token effort into the actual product. Judged strictly within its price point, Casey's succeeds on the food itself, with the old time charm a bonus, not a crutch.
The Bottom Line
Casey's will take you back in time even if you're not from Natick. Sure, they're known for the hot dogs, but they also happen to have one of the area's better unfussy, old school burgers, even without any seasoning or creativity. Sometimes burger simplicity is all you need.
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